Biking in Dollars and Cents

paper by Prof. Thomas Gotschi published in the January issue Journal of Physical Activity Today suggests Portland could save about $800 million by 2040 if it continues to invest in bicycle facilities. Here is a quote from the abstract:

  • By 2040, investments in the range of $138 to $605 million will result in health care cost savings of $388 to $594 million, fuel savings of $143 to $218 million, and savings in value of statistical lives of $7 to $12 billion. The benefit-cost ratios for health care and fuel savings are between 3.8 and 1.2 to 1, and an order of magnitude larger when value of statistical lives is used.

Today I localize and personalize these projected societal benefits for Portland with a guest post from Dave Steele who looks at how cycling has saved his own family money and improved his personal health. I run into Dave at almost every bicycle event in town and suggested that if he had any particular topics he wanted to write about I would be happy to publish them on Over the Bars in Milwaukee. 

Biking in Dollars and Cents by David Steele

When people ask me about biking, I usually say that because of biking to work I’ve lost 50 pounds, I’m in great shape, and I’ve saved some money. I’ve also had a lot of fun.

The “50 pounds” figure usually raises eyebrows. It sounds like a lot. Weight loss is one of those biking benefits you can actually put a firm number on. Of course, a number can’t fully convey what it feels like to go from being 50 pounds overweight to being your ideal weight.

 People seem to get that biking is a good choice for your health and your finances, but it’s hard to put a firm number on the financial benefits of cycling. After all, when you ride every day you’re spending considerable money on bikes, gear and maintenance. No mode of transport is totally cost-free, of course. So how much money do you really save in the long run by cycling for transportation? 

Lots of fun AND good financial sense?

To address this question I considered my family’s own transportation budget over the last two years. I looked at a rough estimate of my actual budget, in which I rode nearly everywhere, and a “hypothetical” budget in which I drive everywhere. I’ve kept track of my bike mileage, but I’m terrible at tracking receipts. So this is a very rough, back of the envelope calculation.

Like any budget, this one is unique to my own circumstances. I live and work in the city of Milwaukee, a relatively compact urban environment, where I typically travel about 15 miles a day. I work downtown, where parking rates are high, but my employer covers the cost of parking. I have only two bikes, one winter commuter and one non-winter commuter.  I’m now able to do basic bike maintenance myself, but two years ago I had to take the bike into the shop for nearly everything. And, of course, this budget is from a time when gas prices were between $1.50 and $2.50 a gallon, a low point for recent years.

 Dave’s Transportation Budget 2009-2010


It’s clear that the single biggest impact to my     transportation budget is the fact that my family is a one-car household. Thanks to the bike, we were able to sell our second car, a 2003 Hyundai Accent, two years ago. This instantly put about $3300 additional dollars in our bank account. Our Hyundai was paid off when we sold it, but it was entering the “nickel and dime” phase of its life span, when the repair and maintenance costs really start to add up.

We sold the car to a high school student in my wife’s hometown in Southwest Wisconsin. Since everyone knows everyone in my wife’s hometown, we know for a fact that our former car has been sitting in a repair lot for months, apparently in need of some major repair. While I feel for the kid who bought our car, I’m also fully aware that that repair cost would have been ours to bear. There’s no way to know just how much we would have spent on repairs had we kept the Hyundai, but I estimated them at $1000. It could have been much more.

So, there you have it. Biking has saved my family over $1,000 over the last two years. When you factor in the sale of our second car, it’s closer to $4,500. This money has gone into fixing up our house and long-overdue trips to visit family, among other things.

At the risk of sounding like an investment guru, biking for transportation seems like a sound financial strategy. Cars and bikes are not assets; they have no inherent long term value aside from what you get out of them as use them, although cars seem to depreciate much more than bikes do. Since bikes cost so much less than a car to operate ($750 vs $2500 per year in my experience), biking allows you to spend more money on actual assets, like your house or your child’s college education. 

Of course, as in the case of weight loss, putting a number on how much money you’re saving doesn’t quite get at what it feels like to sell a car because you don’t need it, not because you need a new one.

When the Hyundai rolled out of our lives for good, I said goodbye to all of the inevitable repair costs down the road, all of the future $4 gasoline I would have pumped into into its tank, and the future car payments to be made when it came time to buy its replacement. We often equate cars with freedom, but getting rid of our second car was one of the most freeing things I’ve been able to do in years.


About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
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